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"OH WATERS, TEEM WITH MEDICINE TO KEEP MY BODY SAFE FROM HARM, SO THAT I MAY LONG SEE THE SUN." - Rig Veda
"Here I describe recent evidence that, although we have not evolved to be good at reading, writing appears to have culturally evolved to be good for the eye. More specifically, recent research supports the exciting hypothesis that human visual signs look like nature, because that is what we have evolved over millions of years to be good at seeing. This ecological hypothesis for letter shape not only helps explain why we are such good readers, but answers the question, Why are letters and other visual signs shaped the way they are? "
"How can one hope to scientifically address the kinds of shapes found among visual signs, when it is awkward to even rigorously say what the shape of a single letter is?
To solve this problem I decided to use a topological notion of shape, where the details of the geometry do not matter, and what matters is only the manner in which strokes intersect, or join, with other strokes. A straight line, a C and an S have the same topological shape because each is topologically just a single stroke. L, T and X are the three distinct kinds of topological shape having two strokes. For example, a V has the same topological shape as an L because each consists of two strokes meeting at their endpoints.
This notion of shape will be helpful later in measuring the shapes of nature, because while geometrical shape can change quickly as a function of a person’s viewpoint, topological shape is more viewpoint invariant, providing a more robust characterization of the shapes in nature. This topological notion of shape is not merely useful, but possesses psychological justification as well: experts in psychology (e.g., Irving Biederman’s work on intermediate-level representations) and computer vision believe that our visual systems may represent shape in a topological manner."
"The topological shapes of non-pictorial visual signs are, then, for the eye, not the hand. But we are still left with the question, Why does the eye like these shapes? Here is where the evolutionary, or ecological, hypothesis enters into the story. Because over millions of years of evolution our visual systems have been selected to be good at processing the conglomerations of contours occurring in nature, I reasoned that if visual signs have culturally evolved to be easy to see, then we should expect visual signs to have natural topological shapes. "
"Where are these topological shapes in nature? What were conglomerations of strokes for visual signs are now conglomerations of contours for natural scenes. Contours are the edges of objects (as seen by the eye), not, of course, strokes in the world. For example, an L occurs in the world when exactly two edges of an object meet at their endpoints, like an elbow. A T occurs in the world when the edge of an object goes behind another object in the foreground. A Y occurs, for example, at the inside corner of a rectangular room.
We measured how common these and the other topological shapes occur in natural scenes, and were stunned to find that nature possesses the shape signature we saw earlier for visual signs. That is, visual signs are shaped like nature, confirming our ecological hypothesis for the shapes of visual signs. "
"If visual signs look like nature, one might first suppose that the shape signature of nature depends significantly on which natural environment one considers. However, to our surprise, we found that the shape signature is highly robust, differing hardly at all whether we measured images of ancestral environments (e.g., tribal villages, savannas) or urban environments (buildings, walkways)."
"We have been considering visual signs generally, but let us now specifically consider letters in phonemic writing system, for there is an additional question one might have about letters. We saw a moment ago that letters look like natural object junctions. Our ecological hypothesis expects letters to look natural, but why natural junctions? Why not have letters shaped like natural single contours? Or, alternatively, why not have letters shaped like whole objects? Instead of one stroke or a dozen strokes, letters in fact tend to have about three strokes (independent of the size of the writing system), and thus are at an intermediate level between edges and objects.
The answer may lie in the following pair of facts: (i) we wish to read words, not letters; and (ii) we have evolved to see objects, not object-junctions. In this light, we expect culture to select words to look like objects, so that words may be processed by the same area in visual cortex responsible for recognizing objects."
The German photography artist Michael Wesely has created even longer exposures using a self-built pinhole camera. He captured the light of his objects for up to 3 years.
New research shows that culture even affects our cognition. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology claims that Americans and Japanese intuit the emotions of others differently based on cultural training. “North Americans try to identify the single important thing that is key to making a decision,” explains Dr. Takahiko Masuda, the study’s author, over the phone from his office at the University of Alberta. “In East Asia they really care about the context.” He studied the eye movement of Americans and Japanese when analyzing a picture of a group of cartoon people. When asked to interpret the emotion of the person in the center, the Japanese looked at the person for about one second before moving on to the people in the background. They needed to know how the group was feeling before understanding the emotion of the individual. The Americans (and Canadians in subsequent studies) focused 95% of their attention on the person in the center. Only 5% of their attention was focused on the background, and this, Dr. Masuda points out, didn’t influence their interpretation of the central figure’s emotion. For North Americans the foreground is all-important.